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7676two European cathedrals

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  • euxenite2000
    Jul 23, 2014
      This month I visited two cathedrals for the first time: Chartres in France and Westminster Abbey in England. I have posted once before about the cosmati pavement in Westminster Abbey so I was quite happy to see this first hand. 

      See my earlier post here:

      Both of these famous sites were used prior to the constructions of their present edifices (construction on both begun about fifty years apart: Chartres in 1194 and Westminster Abbey in 1245). More importantly, they represent the height of the French and English Gothic styles, respectively. It's hard to condense my impressions of these magnificent structures. Especially because I have been immersed in Japanese wooden temple architecture, seeing these massive stone structures up close was a long time coming for me. I'm sure many list members have visited Westminster Abbey, too, and it would be nice to know your impressions as well. And if anyone here has visited Chartres at all I would like to know because it was a place I'd always wanted to go and I'm so happy that I finally made it. I should say that I was not able to visit Christopher Wren's masterpiece, St. Paul's cathedral. So that will have to occur later, if I should be so lucky. 

      I saw Chartres first so I will start there. Chartres is a small town about one hour by train outside of Paris and the cathedral is close to the train station. Exiting the station I headed in the general direction of the cathedral and knew I would quickly find it. I just hoped that the weather would hold out because it was a gray day and I had my umbrella in hand. Making my way along the quaint side-streets I could not see the cathedral because there were many other buildings in the way. However, I soon came to a park that acted as a clearing and I saw the partial structure rising from afar. It was breathtaking even from that distance. As I got closer it became harder to photograph because of the obstructions but when I got near the entrance I could see its face clearly.

      And what a face it is. Chartres is famous in part for its huge rose windows, on the one hand, and its strangely mismatched steeples, on the other. But none of that matters when you get up close to it. All that counts is its massive size. It is like approaching a sheer cliff. Or maybe it is like standing before the City of New Jerusalem itself. But it would be a New Jerusalem stretching upward from your eyes as a mountain does. I spent time photographing the face, towers, and sculptures above the entrances. Then I entered the mountain.

      -- Photo of massive face of Chartres, including western rose window:
      -- Photo of mismatched steeples:

      Inside was exceptionally dark. The day was cloudy, as I say, and it was late afternoon by the time I'd arrived so there wasn't a steady pouring of sunlight inside. The doors also closed quickly behind me as I entered inside. It felt like we should *not* be letting light enter through the doors in order to optimize the light entering through the large stained glass windows. Once my eyes had adjusted, though, I felt as thought I had stepped back in time a few centuries. Except that there was noise from construction so this was a distraction I hadn't foreknown. What was worse, because the construction was in the middle of the cathedral they moved the chairs used for seating the congregation and put them on top of the great labyrinth!  So we couldn't see the labyrinth. But in all honesty you need an aerial eye to appreciate it anyway so I didn't feel as though I missed too much -- but it would have been nice to walk it, that's for sure.

      --Photo of a darkened Chartres interior:
      --Photo of how the labyrinth looks with chairs over it:
      --Photo of how the labyrinth looks from above:

      Once inside and moving within the mountain it is impossible not to look up at the great vaulted stone expanse above. Your eyes just want to go there despite the competing claims for your attention (the massive rose windows call out to be viewed and the long aisles and naves demand that you contemplate their perspective). But most insistent of all is the beckoning "heaven" above. This was my first time to visit a European cathedral so it was my first real taste of vintage Middle Age heaven. A cathedral is meant to be entered and, once inside, it envelops you, dwarfs you, and never lets you forget that it owns you: you surrender to its massive size and let go of your human dimensions. The structure's overwhelming immensity fuses your senses together. No longer is heaven a vaulted blue sky with torn curtains for clouds but a great vault of stone and pointed arches. Instead of sun rays surfing through clouds there are stained glass windows singing to you in primary colors. Somehow the master builders managed to lift all that stone over your head like a great wave. While my brain knows that the weight of the stone presses downward, my eyes and heart tell me that the stone is instead being lifted upward. Truly, very magical.

      --Photo of the vaulted ceiling:

      To this into perspective, at least for me, I have stood in front of the best temples in Japan but it's a very different experience. These are vastly different representations of the cosmic order. Take the massive Toji Temple -- one of the tallest temples in Japan. This temple is breathtaking to behold when seen in full view. Here, however, heaven is not vaulted over your eyes and head but a series of roofs or umbrella flourishings rising upward one from the other. It's the difference between a mountain and a great tree. The temple still communicates height but it is not meant to be entered. Instead, one walks around it, relishes in the natural surroundings and beautiful gardens, and takes in all the wooden scents and carvings adorning its many surfaces. But you don't "walk around" Chartres for effect (although viewing the flying buttresses is worth it). Similarly, I don't think we are meant to see in Chartres a harmonious linking of the natural ground with heaven. Instead, a cathedral imposes its majesty upon you. Its sole purpose, it seems, is to envelop and transport you from this world altogether. Like entering a spaceship, I stepped through its entrance and checked the mundane world at the door. 

      --Photo of Toji Temple, Japan

      Anyway, back to France. Moving within Chartres's aisles, down the nave, through the transepts, and around the choir screen, I found the familiar Christian stories. I was most impressed by the Baroque relief sculptures of biblical scenes on the exterior of the choir screen. But it is the stained glass that truly makes Chartres unique. Over 200 windows cast the pages of the bible in light. Here, the word isn't made flesh -- it is made living color! But your eyes can't touch this color as in paintings and sculptures -- many of the glass windows are too high to even discern clearly. Rather, they all combine into one solemn sermon that seems to vault your senses (again) upwards and out of this world (again). 

      --Photo of sculptures around rounded choir screen:
      --Photo (blurry) showing how high some of the windows are:

      Now on to England. Westminster Abbey cathedral was an entirely different experience. For one thing, I had to stand in line to enter (which is one reason I chose not to go inside Notre Dame in Paris). For another, it cost 18 pounds (Chartres was free). And finally, I could not take any photos inside Westminster (again, it was all-you-can-photograph in Chartres, but you did have to contend with dark lighting conditions). On the other hand, I have never been so impressed by the notion of monarchy before. This cathedral is the closest I have come to understanding what a divine throne looks like -- the kind we are accustomed to talking about in reference to the pharaohs of old, or even the lesser Babylonian "middle-men" god-kings. But I am getting ahead of myself.

      --Photo of face of Westminster Abbey:

      After waiting in line to enter the Abbey, paying my fee, and obtaining my self-guided tour headset, I was somewhat to free to wonder the aisles and spaces of this magisterial thing. Only I was overwhelmed by the sheer weight of history assaulting my eyes. Darwin's tomb. Newton's tomb. Henry VIII. Elizabeth I. Edward the Confessor. Mary, Queen of Scots. And and and. The list is too long to enumerate. Over the years I have come to believe that every space in a church is meaningful or, if it is not, it will become so in time. However, this Abbey was by far the most crowded historically significant space I have ever visited! It's simply overwhelming to anyone alive to history. 

      --Photo of Mary, Queen of Scots tombstone:

      Anyway, back to the structure itself. I was glad I'd visited Chartres the day before I entered the Abbey because I got to compare a naked cathedral with one clothed in royal robes, so to speak. Chartres is to Westminster as stone is to gold. The one communicates its message in terms of religion, the other in terms of monarchy. It was a crucially vital fusion to bear in mind. I think it is clear that the British monarchy perceives itself as god's representative on earth. I was witness to a prayer delivered on the hour and visitors were asked to take a moment for reflection. I wish I had the words to the prayer because it was clear that the priest conceived Britain as leading the rulers of the world or, in some sense, ruling by example. You've heard about "train the trainers" in the workplace; this was "lead the leaders" in the political space. Truly awesome: full of conceit and humility, power and fragility, history and the future, all in one. 

      Structurally, architecturally, I was less impressed by the Abbey except for the fact that it appeared much brighter inside to me. That was one of the other differences: in Chartres I felt I had entered inside a mountain. Inside the Abbey, on the other hand, I felt like I was in a big church. The Abbey simply shone very brightly: gold and light everywhere. Quite the contrast to the 200 stained glass windows of Chartres and a feeling of communicating with the darkness. If anything, I felt like Chartres would have made a very good "inner sanctorum" for the Abbey. Anyway, just my opinion. No offense to Brits out there: the Abbey is an awesome structure and I really like it. But if it's job was to bring me closer to the divine it didn't succeed. But if it's job was to bring to mind a sense of power, monarchy, and history, it did this very effectively. In the Abbey, I saw man and kings; in Chartres, I saw glimpses of the divine. But that could just be me.

      The cosmati pavement was a let down. Like the labyrinth of Chartres, you really need to view this thing from above. Here is how the cosmati pavement should look: 


      or this one with Kate and William on it:

      But visitors do not see this view at all, of course. The pavement is raised up on a few steps, as you might expect, but because the area is roped off visitors are not permitted to mount it. The result is quite unfortunate: the pavement is basically at eye level and most people have no idea it is there at all. They see the throne, of course, but not the "world" upon which the throne stands. But such is the hidden meaning of all this, I guess. I can hear Fulcanelli chuckling to himself.

      However, there was one room in which I was visually impressed by the stone work. The monument to Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon (1525-1596) in St John the Baptist’s chapel is the tallest in Westminster Abbey. But the stonework must have been restored because the colors and sheen are wonderful:



      Well, I've rambled long enough. If you've made it this far, I promise that I will leave you with at least one takeaway. Want to know the difference between English and French gothic styles? Here it is. Note the "magisterial heights" that the following two ceilings convey:

      English gothic (Westminster Abbey nave):

      French gothic (Chartres nave):

      Both are wonderful. Utterly stupefying feats of engineering, if you ask me. But I definitely walked away with a sense of heaven from the one, and a sense of the world, from the other.

      Even so, and in defense of the Abbey and our good friends from Britain, just before exiting the Abbey I chatted briefly an attendant working there. I mentioned that there were just so many people inside. She seemed to understand what I meant perfectly (maybe that is why I had a less than personal experience). Anyway, it was now 4pm and nearing closing time. She encouraged me to stand in a certain spot prior to exiting. "Now is the quietest it will be all day" she said. I was glad for this advice. I stood there viewing the long nave of the cathedral and I have a very clear picture of it in my mind. Because it was brighter than Chartres, I don't have this same long view of that cathedral in my mind. Turning around, my eyes lit upon another memorial stone on the floor. It said, "Remember Winston Churchill". Another reminder of the faulty human world in which we live. Amen to that.

      Be well all.